A President’s Day reminiscence of two Actors-in-Chief that crossed paths with family…
“I come from a good family, I’m rich and I like my work, and so does the public, and the critics, and the Academy. I’m just a physical drunk. I like being drunk.”
“What did you say to that?” I said, really wanting a beer right then and there. Pop shrugged.
“I got it,” he said, reaching for the bill. “Let’s get coffee somewhere else.”
Pop went on about the time Van Heflin, movie star, confessed his love of the drunk. It was at the Ambassador hotel that a working luncheon was called for the rank and file union members across the Hollywood spectrum, from the stars to the little people; if you were a dues paying member of one of the locals, you were invited.
“I always had to pause and make sure of who I was with,” Pop said. “You see someone famous in two dimensional media all the time and then they are standing right next to you and the extra dimension throws things off just enough you have to be sure before you address them. You can’t introduce yourself to Van Heflin by calling him Dana Andrews.”
“Bad career move, I would think.”
“Indeed. These fellas can be sensitive, a bit.”
“Aren’t you glad you lived so long?” I said, bringing him a half caff, unsweetened latte royale, with extra foam, no cinnamon.
“Do they even make Sanka anymore?” he said, looking down into the cup with a raised eyebrow. “Is that a maple leaf?”
“Its caramel. So how did you get Van Heflin to explain his love of the buzz?”
“I got there early, of course, and he was the only one at the bar so I sit a stool and a half over and he lights up right away, puts his hand out…”
“You guys recognize a brother right away, famous or not, huh?”
“Pretty much. So I see he’s a quart down and say to the barkeep two more, I mean why not?”
“Sure, Union Strong.”
“Yeah, we’ll, anyway we have two Bloody Mary’s going and who should walk in but Ronald Reagan.”
“He was the head of SAG so of course he’d be there. Had the charisma of week old coffee. I think he was Wasserman’s punk, to tell you the truth.”
“Bitch,” I said. “Update your epitaphs.”
“I don’t know what that means but Bitch it is, though I voted for him for President, twice.”
“I won’t ask a doctrinaire atheist why but continue- you were at Van Heflen and Ronnie, Bloody Mary’s at noon…”
“Actually it was just after eleven when I sat down next to Dana.”
“Wait,” I said, “who was it you were drinking with?”
“Christ,” he said, sipping his drink, “I can’t remember but I think it was Dana Andrews. The names, I told you, they go first. It was Reagan, though. I’ll never forget him.”
INT: Ambassador Hotel Bar, Midday-
Two Rabelasian louts, actor Dana Andrews and Mike, one of the little people that help bring magic to the silver screen, are stool by stool at the Ambassador Hotel bar. Entering stage left is actor and SAG head cheese, Ronald Reagan-
Dana: Ronnie, how are you? This is Mike, local 33- Good round number, huh?
Ronald Reagan, president of the Screen Actors Guild, shakes Dana’s hand with a Masonic grip, gives Mike a nod, turns to Dana, his back to Mike.
Ronald Reagan: The bourgeoise abides. We must divide. Comrade, glad tidings.
Dana takes a long pull on his drink. He taps the celery on the side of the glass, gives the stalk a lick and places it on the coaster.
Dana: I’m a bit rusty on my Engels since HUAC assembled, Ronnie-boy.
Ronald Reagan: Comrade, in place of the old bourgeoise society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association in which free development of each is the free development of all.
Mike takes a slug and finishes his drink, glancing at the exit. Dana gulps his down as well. Ronnie-boy clears his throat.
Dana: (Waving to the bartender) Three more Mustafas three.
Dana pulls up a stool for Reagan to sit with them. Reagan remains standing, looking at his wristwatch. The bartender brings three fresh Bloody Mary’s and Mike is quick with a fiver to get this round. Reagan is aghast.
Ronald Reagan: Comrades, it is not even noon and you are having a second drink?
Dana: (Laughing) Yeah, second. Lighten up RR, a toast to the proles!
Reagan hesitates but feeling in good fellowship with fellow travelers he hoists his beverage, draws a breath.
Ronald Reagan: From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. Prost!
Ronald Reagan, before anything else, was then, as now, even as worm buffet and icon of the short sighted “I’ve-got-mine” idiocracy, a free marketeer. He was being paid to corral the working stiffs into the socialist pen and in time would be paid one dollar more, pro rated, to preach the exact opposite of the Marxist party line. What an actor!
INT: Ambassador Hotel Bar- Late Afternoon-
Dana and Mike bob and weave on their stools, snickering and calling for more Beer Nuts. Several glasses and dead soldiers, Pabst Blue Ribbon bottles, clutter their area. They gave up on attending the meeting several rounds earlier. The rank and file are wandering out of the main ballroom, the bar is getting crowded.
Mike: Two boys made it out of the north, smuggled under hay bales in an ox cart. The entire rest of the clan was wiped out. The British set every flavor of Protestant against each other and all against the Catholics, all because the crown wanted to switch the land from flax farming to sheep herding. Takes about a tenth of the population to manage wool production. As if those inbred Twat-Waffles up the palace didn’t have enough money. I tell ya’ they just do it for laughs, tearing peoples apart like that.
Dana has made the mistake of asking a drunk Irishman about his kin. He’s half awake but Mike is in full throttle, recalling the Wolfe-Tone rebellion and the devastation to his family-
Mike: These boys get down to Cork as Antrium burns to the ground. They were from then Londonderry at the top but landed at the bottom in Cork. Up in Derry, the other line, McCloskey, is in fine fettle and Pat and Liz are able to immigrate once they’re hitched. The only news there is their son, Johnny, grows up to be the first Cardinal appointed to the Yoo Ess by the pope. 1870’s something….zzzzzzzzz…..
“Yeah, so, what happened?”
Pop finished his coffee.
“I don’t know. I fell asleep on the bar. Andrews was already out even though he was sitting upright, mouth open, sawing logs.”
“No, what happened to the two boys? They really slipped out of town under hay bales? Like Vito Andolini?”
“Never mind, the show is about to start.”
With Samuel Petrullius
In this by the numbers oater, Dana Andrews co-stars as Big Bill McCloskey, a legendary railroad hunter who takes the point as the Union Pacific rail lines are being built westward in the 1870’s or there a’bouts. As always, Andrews gives a low key but intense performance, this time facing off against Van Heflin’s Diamond Jim O’Kane, the only rival to the kind of low heat, pregnant mayhem school of acting in which Andrews is the king. Leavening the simmer to a stand still and a hoary frost is that human placard known as Ronald Reagan, essaying Osiris Gilhoolie, mayor to the township of Beaverton where that mayhem gives birth.
A little backdrop: Railroad hunters were the most popular men on the rail laying teams as there were no 7 11’s back then and you had to kill what you ate. Feeding the coolies and bedding stray squaws is all Big Bill asks out of life and that’s all it gives him. We follow Big Bill as he takes his Sharps .50 caliber buffalo killer and shoots anything that moves. This accumulating blood lust inevitably leads to chaos once the last spike is nailed into place and Big Bill is out of a job.
Mayor Gil, as Reagan’s character is known by, sees in Big Bill’s immediate dissipation an opportunity to wrest control of the Beaverton rackets from his one time benefactor, Heflin’s Diamond Jim. The bait for getting that Sharp’s shooter on Gil’s side is a casque of the finest Irish whiskey west of the river Liffey and a ten-bitch pile up of indeterminate race (and gender) named Griselda, played with authentic spritz by Lomalita Nussbaum-Scott, in her only film performance to date.
Needless to say, the dad’s’ll go cookoo for cocoa puffs for this testosterone fueled afterbirth of hack writer TM McCloskey’s (no relation) DT’s; a good excuse to let Mom finally get to those socks while the boys play hookie.
Three and a half silver flasks!
“Your great great uncle was a railroad hunter. William Clarence McCloskey. Big Bill. He’d shoot game all day and rape squaws at night. A real psychopath.”
“What relation was he to the Cardinal?”
“First cousin, I think. He was at least twenty years younger.”
“The ‘ought fifty has a mule kick recoil, so you best be in a kneel with a keister before you shoot into the herd.”
Big Bill carefully turns up the brass sight and it snaps into place. The Dauphin leans his shoulder into the butt and with one squinting eye spots the bison over two hundred yards anon through the cross hairs.
“Squeeze, don’t pull, just like rubbin’ one off in the can.”
“Cut!” yells the director as the crew bursts out laughing. “Goddammit, Dana,” he barks.
“Sixty!” shouts the AD.
“Goddammit, you bleeding’ sot!” yells the director in his British best hiss, throwing down his megaphone and missing it with a kick that lands him on his boney ass. Dana is already halfway to the commissary, motioning his assistant to produce the flask as the crew breaks for lunch.
I pull out of the theater parking lot. Pop could see three pictures a day, even sixty year old tripe like Hell’s Steel if someone he had known was in it. Old folks need their memories as much as crossword puzzles to stay sharp.
“I could have written that,” Pop said. “Just like the real Big Bill.”
“What happened to him after the last spike was struck?”
“Diamond Jim caught him dancing with his girl, some chippie spitfire, at the dance they threw once the rails had been joined. The celebration lasted days and half the town burned down.”
“And Jim’s girl…?”
“Oh, yeah, so Diamond Jim runs an iron shiv through Bills gut, some medieval mule skinner, and pinned Bill against the wall. Just stuck him there like a beetle on a needle.”
I turned onto La Brea and started looking for a place that looked like it would have stew on the menu. Pop was down to a couple of teeth and stew was the ticket if he wanted to get some meat to keep the synapses sparking.
“We’ll, Bill had a lot of friends in that dance hall and Diamond Jim’s minions had to get their meal ticket out of there before he was butchered. Bill’s backers got him to the hospital behind the church and the doctor sewed him up. The mayor came in to see how Bill was doing and the way I heard it, that rat bastard mayor had sent Bill after Jim’s girl to get both of them kilt and take over Jim’s smuggling operation, running guns to Mexican bandits down the coast in a frigate. The guns eventually turned up in Cuba, but that’s another whopper.”
“You like hot and sour soup?” I asked, not finding much on either side of the street catering to a meat and potatoes Irish palate. The traffic was stop and go and the dinner crowd would be moving in from everywhere. “There’s another Denny’s up ahead.”
“I don’t give a shit,” he said. “They have chowder. That’ll do.”
“BLT with extra mayo, please.” The waitress took the menus away. I had about one more meal of this sort in me and then the wheat grass enemas would begin tomorrow morning to hold off the ass cancer as long as possible.
“So, there’s Big Bill” I said, “on the mend in the church hospital. I assume he wasn’t a praying man, despite his family connection to the Cardinal.”
“Its certain they never met. Bill never ventured east of St. Louis. He met Soapy Smith there, or maybe it was Denver, and anyway he started running with his gang all the way up into Alaska. They were…”
“Wait,” I said, waving my hand. “Bill’s still in the hospital. How’d he get out of Beaverton alive?”
“Right, well the mayor, Osiris Walpurgisnacht Gilhoolie IV, my hand to god you can look that name up, sent some of Jim’s goons in to finish Bill off but some of Bill’s boys got wind of the plot and got to the hospital first. They lifted Bill’s bed with him still in it, the igit galoot tripping balls on morphine and singing Rocky Road to Dublin, and they got it through a bay window, carried him down to the rails and linked the bed to two railroad hand cars and drove him all the way down to Portland where he survived and married his nurse.”
“Just like the movie,” I said, debating whether I should just eat the club sandwich I had been brought or insist on the waitress bring me the BLT I had ordered.
“It’s a BLT but with extras,” Pop said, “Give me the avocado and chicken and you’re set.”
I pinned the meat with the frilled toothpicks and handed them over. He dropped them in his empty chowder bowl and proceeded to wipe up the sides and floor of the bowl with the speared chicken.
“So Bill was later up in the Yukon?”
Pop wiped his beard.
“Klondike. Yeah, he knew Soapy Smith as a kid and he ran into him in St. Louis after he ditched his pregnant nurse wife. Smith was a bad egg, running three-card monte here and there as a punk teenager. He’d put a coin in a congealed ball of soap powder and shuffle the three balls, the one with the coin going up his sleeve.”
“What was up in the Klondike? A gold stake?”
“They were stealing seal skins from the Eskimos and Soapy’s boat was sunk in the Bearing Straights, I think. Or maybe he was gunned down. Somebody was sunk. It’ll come to me.”
He waved the waitress over and ordered a Seven Up. They only had Sprite and he conceded, not giving a fuck, so he said.
“In the merry month of June, when first from home I started,
And left the girls alone, sad and broken-hearted.
Shook hands with father dear, kissed my darling mother,
Drank a pint of beer, my tears and grief to smother;
Then off to reap the corn, and leave where I was born.
I cut a stout blackthorn to banish ghost or goblin;
With a pair of bran new brogues, I rattled o’er the bogs —
Sure I frightened all the dogs on the rocky road to Dublin, 1-2-3-4-5!”
Bill’s boys lower the bed onto a flatbed drawn by two nags and light out for the rail yard. Buzzard Barnes takes the point with a lantern and the gang makes it to the rails just as Diamond Jim’s muscle, Stoolie Brown and his crew, kick the door to Bill’s room in. They have the night nurse in a chokehold, a Colt cocked and making an indentation in her temple.
“The lamp!” Stoolie yells, and lights the gas lamp on the dresser and the crew realize what has happened. A terrible explosion goes off and Stoolie turns and just starts blasting as the lamp hits the floor and ignites. Waffles Terhune, who had the nurse at gunpoint, had sneezed as the open window blew in dust and dirt and his thumb slipped, discharging his pistol. The near headless nurse dropped like a ripped sack a’ taters, her brains splattering all over Stoolie who had reflexively turned and fired, thinking Bill’s boys had come in from the hallway. Waffles hit the floor just as his Colt launched one more missle, hitting Stoolie in his junk, Stoolie spinning counterclockwise, his hands springing automatically into fists, the fist with the pistol firing a round into the ear of Pud Sheeny who was diving for the floor. Stoolie’s pant leg had caught fire and the remaining gang member, Ham Chunk, managed to get out of the room, the town and country, eventually becoming a Baptist minister in Guangxi Provence while Bill’s boys, huffing and puffing, ran the hand car handles up and down as fast as they could, casting a quick glance back at what on earth could be the cause of that distant fire shooting up into the night sky.
“Yeah, your great great uncle was a B movie,” Pop said with a certain tone of pride.
“So are you,” I said. “Maybe an A picture but definitely in black and white. Almost noir, even.”
He laughed and said he was too ethical to be an anti-hero like Big Bill.
“Big Bill was no hero,” I said. “Hollywood would tweak his life, like the Earp brothers, but he was a killer.”
“He got his eventually.”
I debated whether we should call it a night or get in one more movie. The waitress was on break or tired of Pop not giving a shit when what he ordered was nothing like what he was brought and so the check was not forthcoming.
“Cal Coolidge actually signed off on Bill,” Pop said, “dead or alive, which really means dead, with extreme prejudice. That’s it! It was Bill’s boat that was sunk off of Puget Sound. He’d been running guns to Pancho Villa and after Villa was whacked, he was looking for new markets with tons of Army surplus. He was in talks with Dublin, apparently, when they got him.”
“That’s almost certainly why the Prez would dirty his hands,” I said. “With Mexico off the table, the Krauts subdued, the White House, which is the crown’s whorehouse anyway, they’d want an ordnance stream like Big Bill taken out and would do the bidding of those inbred lizards up the palace, no questions asked.”
Pop’s eyes glazed as he silently listened to his son’s screed, wondering if there was any cure for Grassy Knoll Syndrome.
We drove out to Burbank; the Bijou had a triple bill of John Wayne two reelers and it was the only thing listed in the paper that he hadn’t seen.
“I saw Dana Andrews years later at an AA meeting,” Pop said, chuckling at some barely dressed teenage girls traipsing across the street. “Ah, yes. It’s all theory now. Remember that when you get old.”
“I won’t have any memory by then. I’ll have to learn the hard way. Over and over.”
“Andrews got there early, a church basement somewhere in Reseda or some such skunk town out yonder, and we were the only ones there so we set up all the folding chairs.”
“Did he remember you?”
“Nah, of course not. Celebrities meet thousands of people. He’s not going to remember every drunk he blacked out with, obviously. A guy like him probably met more people in a year than you’ll meet in a lifetime.”
There was a line to the box office. The Duke could still sell tickets.
“One of them is probably the one with Louise Brooks,” I said, pulling into the strip mall parking lot.
“So, you said Andrews drank for sport? Why’d he give it up?”
“I have a theory. Resentment is the gateway drug to self-destruction and when you turn it on yourself, you don’t want to be that person you resent. I think that’s what happened to me. Hopefully it will happen to you.”
“Did you share that with him?”
“No, I only figured that out when I was completely done and that was years later. At that meeting he was a newbie but I’d never seen an audience of drunks so rapt with attention. He was an actor and testified like a one-man show. Can’t recall anything he said but he said it beautifully. He died an honest man.”